Kombucha in the Urals: A Month of Memories

kombucha_zme science

(ZME Science: Image of Kombucha, Colorado State University)

The first time I tasted kombucha I was throwing up in a trashcan in a mountain town in western Siberia known for its natural anthrax growth and for being that last remaining gulag stronghold. I had what was called “the Russian flu,” at the time and my friend, a Russian native, insisted that this stuff–that tasted like a mixture of warm spit and cherry juice–could “heal my bones.” And because my bones ached like they’d been crushed by the violent and rickety wheels of the Tran Siberian Railroad, from which we’d embarked only hours ago, I drank it down. The homespun vodka he’d laced it with helped me to bypass that unique kombucha flavor–the feeling of something lumpy that had already been digested by someone else–and I just kept drinking until the fizz died down and the bits of fermented brown mushroom disappeared down my throat. If it isn’t lumpy and warm, it isn’t really kombucha. Not the Russian standard, anyway.


What’s weird about this memory (besides the fact that it’s totally disgusting) is that it was sunken deep inside the forgetful part of my brain until another friend, in a mountain town in eastern Pennsylvania, dug it up about 20 years later. I was no longer a 16-year-old American, hiding my wishfully clandestine MIG photos from the tiny inept KGB officer that was assigned to follow our group around in the drippy, humid Siberian air in a trench coat. I was 30ish now. The June heat in Pennsylvania didn’t keep the sun aloft until well past midnight like it just halfway between the Arctic Circle and the Black Sea. It was dark by 10pm flat, I had four children now, a husband, I had owned two homes already, I went to college, I had written my first novel. I’d been a writer for more than a decade, in fact. Something I’d promised my Russian friend I would become as soon as I returned home to the United States. Russia tells so many stories, he told me. Just choose one and dance with it.

I remembered a lot about Russia, but I didn’t remember the taste of kombucha until my farmer friend, the one with dirt always under her fingernails and who thought hair brushes were for sissies, shoved a tinted glass mason jar in my face. Try this. Tell me if it’s authentic.You’re the Russian expert. Am I?

The foam from the greenish mountain fungus floated to the top, spilling over the ridge. The scent of sour feet singed my nostrils. Once again, I was sickened, but something inside me was also curious. It was like slowly recognizing an old relative at the family reunion. Something about this encounter made me clutch the jar in both hands and bring it to my lips. This is familiar! I said, cocking my head to the right. I know this!

And that instance, there she was. Russia. She was standing in front of me, smirking, laughing. You’re still a wimp. I drank it down. I threw  up. I was home.

This is generally how I run into her again. Not the friend. We’re actually not even friends anymore. Politics took care of that. But Russia–we’re connected. Friendship has nothing to do with it. It’s all about family reunions. It’s about where my ancestors came from. Where my ancestors fled from, if you want to know the truth. It’s about why I get recognized by Slavs a mile away. Not because I smell like authentic kombucha (I’d have even less friends), but because like the mushroom, Russia sprouts in my life and makes connections at the weirdest times. Family reunions.

So, since I’ve spectacularly failed at my own monthly blogging challenge, friends, I wonder if I might be able to deflect from my failure by demanding a challenge from you: Write about a sensory memory that draws you back somewhere far, somewhere you’d thought you’d left behind long ago. What smell, touch, taste, smell, sight draws you back? Let’s make what’s left of January the Month of Memories.

Write and share, and drink your pansy American kombucha. But that pretty little fizz ain’t remotely authentic enough to change anything. Sorry to break it to you, tough hippies.

Tricky Dick and the Man in Black

Image result for johnny cash cigarette

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison


So, I wrote this whole Day Two blogging challenge post thingy and I really hated it in the end. It was about politics, and I don’t want to talk about politics on Shabbat, the night when we’re all supposed to sit together and eat fattening twisted bread and thank G-d for his many blessings. I want to talk about the documentary I watched today instead.

It was the last day of my week off, which wasn’t much of a week off for a few million busy reasons, but I decided to sit down and watch some Netflix. If you know me you that I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan (Okie here), and I saw that there was a documentary about Johnny and Nixon called Tricky Dick and the Man in Black. 

The documentary begins by showing how patriotic Johnny was, how he “never disrespected the presidency” that this was something he believed firmly in. Then, comes the thousands of deaths in Vietnam, then comes protests in the street. And in the street protests, Johnny sees young people on the hunt for truth, not lies neatly packaged in apple pie. He slowly starts to move away from this idea that if you burn the American flag you deserve to be shot (something he’d announced at more than one concert in the past). He started to think that maybe Americans were being lied to, and only the youth were catching on to this.

So, he’s asked to sing at the White House, because the Republicans believe that country music is teeming with pro-America/pro-Nixon people. Richard Nixon is actually the first president to begin tying Southern culture directly to the image of patriotism and Americanism. The president wants to use Johnny Cash to turn the doubters towards him, just when his popularity is beginning to wane.He believes all they need to do is here a little honkey-tonk and their brains will shut off. The youth also have an affection and trust for the guy whose best selling album was recorded at a California federal prison. He understood something about being authentic, something the emerging Baby Boomer generation was aching for. The president understood this as well.

He was told to sing whatever songs he wished, but told also to include the offensive “Cadillac Welfare” song  and the anti-hippy “Okie From Muskogee” to appeal to Southern bigots. He agreed to, and then, instead sang a song called “What is Truth?”. It made Tricky Dick mighty uncomfortable, and revealed that Johnny knew something, even then, about what a liar that piece of crap in the oval office was. I don’t want to give away everything (though it’s a documentary and not a thriller), but let me just say you should see it. It’s so relevant to say that even presidents can be the worst of people and guys who visit the prisoners can be the best and protesters are exercising their American right to challenge the powers that wish to blind them to reality.


July 4th

american flag

It’s the 4th of July and the cloudless sky is filled with flickers of distant bursts of red, white and blue explosions. The puffs they leave behind float in trails above the rounded maple and the tall stately oak trees. Pennsylvania celebrates the independence it birthed 241 years ago. In a handsome brick building with a spire like a church building, the men who signed the Declaration of Independence stood around in tights and wigs, hyped up on dreams of keeping their money safe from the King’s tax demands. Future generations would add more depth to their original desires for financial freedoms. The common man would add the demand for racial equality, immigration and women’s rights, fair labor laws and a security program for the disabled and elderly. We would improve upon the original ideas of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It’s not likely that the men who presented it to King George anticipated that the great-great grandchildren of their slaves, North and South, would one day demand freedom or that women like their wives would have the power to vote. But things have happened despite the wishes of the “founding fathers”. Thank God. They were geniuses, no doubt, but they were far from ideal human beings. They did have the forethought to anticipate change, and for that, I really love them.

As I drove home from a small 4th of July celebration with only my family, I couldn’t help but notice a much lesser number of flags hanging on front doors and porches and a decidedly less enthused America remembering its revolutionary past. I don’t care who you are, if you think America is in a good place right now, you’re not paying attention. There’s an overall sense of apprehension, a heaviness, about where we are going and what the future holds for this imperfect nation we love. People aren’t celebrating our heritage and independence like we did even a year ago today. We’re less proud right now. A great many of us are ashamed of our present image in the world, of our ghastly president who acts like deranged baboon. How did we get here? is a statement I’ve heard repeated continuously since last November. The countdown to 2018 and 2020 is ticking pensively every day in millions of worried minds across the nation.

We’ve done so many great things in our history. We’ve done so many horrible things too. Our present is proof that we are capable of great mistakes. My prayer is that life gets better for People of Color, for immigrants, for members of the LGBT community, for women and children and for the men who support them in every way.  For all Americans. My prayer on this 4th of July is that God will free of us our present state and present leadership and give us statesmen like Lincoln or FDR, or better yet–a stateswoman–and that we’ll remember that it’s the tired and the poor who have really made us great, the workers and the worn-down patriots who volunteer to defend the freedoms we aim to realize completely. Our greatness has never left us (contrary to some political sales gimmicks) but our pride is deflated.

God bless us all in 2017, and God bless America.

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